- One-shot -
My parents' marriage was partially arranged - their parents were friends and, when it was time for both of them to settle down, my two sets of grandparents suggested they give it a chance. Because the families had been friends, my parents knew each other very well, and so they agreed.
Sometime during the four-and-a-half months between the engagement and wedding, they fell in love.
Today, they are still very much in love. My dad is a volatile type - he is like a volcano, storing all his peeves within him, and then exploding without warning at the slightest trigger. My mom, in contrast, is soft and even-tempered; it is a mystery to all of our relatives how their marriage has survived for so long.
I guess opposites do attract.
My older brother, Liam, is the oldest child to my parents, and the oldest grandchild to my mother's parents. As a baby, he was treated like royalty - pampered by all of our aunts, uncles, and cousins.
When I was born, 4 years later, I was the oldest daughter to my parents, and oldest granddaughter to both sets of grandparents. Needless to say, I was spoiled senseless. My mom's youngest sister still occasionally slips up and calls her 10-year-old daughter by my name, because I was the first child she took care of. So yes, spoiled.
And that is my family.
We grew up in the big city, Toronto, surrounded by skyscrapers, noisy commuters, and smog. I loved every aspect of it.
When we moved into the suburbs, I couldn't adjust too well. It became difficult to sleep, without the constant background sounds of the downtown core, and I began wandering the house in the night. I became an insomniac.
And that's how I first saw him.
I had been standing on the second-floor balcony, staring up at the sky, when I saw headlights flicker below me. When I looked down, I saw a car pull into the driveway of the house a few doors down from the one opposite mine.
The driver opened the car door slowly, cautiously, to avoid making excessive noise, and climbed out. He was tall and blond. That was my first impression. That, and the fact that his body was trim from the view I had of his backside.
He edged towards the porch and, instead of using the front door, proceeded to slide the front window glass aside to make a space large enough for him to slide in through. I stared as he slipped inside, and his hands appeared a few seconds later to slide the glass back into place.
Thinking back, I don't know why I didn't think it was a burglar; I assumed that he was a teenager sneaking back into his house after a long night of partying.
Turns out I was right.
I spent my nights on that balcony for a week, waiting to get another glimpse of him, but his car was always in the driveway - he was not sneaking in those days.
My troubles with sleeping disappeared after that week, and I managed to adjust to my new home.
High school began 3 months after that night and my first day went better than expected. I made new friends, and managed not to offend anyone. The teachers didn't consider me insolent - yet - and, all-in-all the day went well...until, of course, I saw him in the hallway.
He was leaning against a set of lockers with a bunch of guys, laughing at some joke.
"Niv," I whispered, grabbing the arm of one of my new friends. "Who is that?"
She followed my gaze and turned back to me with a roll of her eyes. "You mean Kieran Westwood?"
"Blond guy," I said rather pathetically. Four out of the five guys were blond. "The tallest one," I added.
"Yeah, that's Kieran."
"Tell me about him," I begged her.
"What's to tell? He's one of the 'popular' guys," she made air quotes for emphasis. "He's not rich (which goes against all the cool-guy clichés), he parties like no tomorrow and," she added with a graceful twirl, "he's not an asshole."
"Not, or is?" I asked, confused.
"Not. As in, he's actually a nice guy," Niv told me. "Now, why do you ask?"
In hushed tones, I told her of the night I had seen him sneak into his house.
Niv started laughing. "My new friend is a stalker!" she cried out in between bouts of laughter.
"Stop it!" I hissed at her. "People are watching us now."
Realizing the truth in my statement, Niv quickly stopped laughing. "Don't look now, but somebody else is also watching."
Of course, I turned and looked.
My hazel eyes met pale blue ones, and the jolt that went through me felt like a high-magnitude earthquake had passed through my body.
And then he walked away from his friends, and towards us.
"Hi," he said, coming to stand in front of me.
"Hi," I mumbled, still fascinated by his eyes. "Are those contacts?"
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Niv looked horrified at my question.
He laughed. "No, that's my real eye colour. I'm Kieran." He gave me his hand to shake.
And then I did the most random thing you could ever imagine. I took his hand and shook it, saying "I'm Vanessa Cerille, soon-to-be Vanessa Westwood."
Niv's jaw dropped as I wondered where the words had come from.
Kieran's face registered surprise, but his eyes were twinkling. "In that case, I wish you all the luck," he said. "See you later, potential future wife of mine."
And that was how I met Kieran Westwood.
Having made a complete fool of myself on my first school day, I figured things couldn't get worse. But it did.
Niv's big mouth had to go and tell her best friends what had happened and they, in return, had to go tell their best friends. Needless to say, by the end of the week, the entire school knew that I had set my sights on Kieran Westwood.
And that included his girlfriend.
It would have been nice if I had known of her existence prior to declaring my intentions for the world to hear, but my brain had not even paused to considered the possibility. Huh, Mr. Popular without a girlfriend? Apparently my brain was going through a numb phase. Or dumb phase.
What made it worse, though, is that she was nice. Lilian Sergio - "call me Lily" - came up to me on the second Monday of school. Having seen her walking towards me in the lunchroom - Niv had pointed her out - I braced myself for a confrontation.
Lily was a tiny brunette, the top of her head only reaching my ear; that would make her about an inch shorter than Kieran's shoulder. Her hair barely grazed her shoulder, and was currently pulled into a ponytail. She was dressed casually in a pair of jeans and a simple green blouse. When she smiled, her face was beautiful.
She smiled at me. "Hi, you're Vanessa right?"
I nodded and gritted my teeth, anticipating the threat that would come out of her mouth next.
"I'm Lilian - you can call me Lily."
Lily looked uncomfortable at my abrupt greeting. "I...ah...just wanted to introduce myself," she told me. "There are a lot of rumours going around about us...you've probably heard them?"
I nod again. I had indeed heard the rumours saying that Lily and I were going to "meet" in the park after school one day and "discuss the situation" (read: she's going to kill me).
"I'm not like that," she told me. "Kieran is a great guy...I can't blame you for liking him."
I just watched her.
"Ah...you do like him, right?"
I nodded again.
"This is awkward," she mumbled so that only I could hear.
I felt the same; the entire cafeteria had gone silent, trying to eavesdrop on our conversation.
Sighing, I nodded again. "I have nothing against you," I told her in the same hushed tone she was using, "I just want your boyfriend." I shrugged.
Lily grinned at that. "Like I said, I can't blame you. But," she continued quickly, "I'm not going to make it easy for you." She stuck out a hand. "I don't want to make an enemy, even if we don't become friends, so...nice to meet you."
I shook her hand, much to the disappointment of all the guys hoping for a cat fight. "Unfortunately for me, it was nice meeting you too."
Kieran treated me as he treated every girl who wasn't Lily. I would receive a nod in the hallway, a faint smile if I was lucky.
I didn't approach him after that first day, mainly because Lily's openness had gotten to me. If she has thrown a fit over my open appreciation for her boyfriend, I probably would have jumped on him at every opportunity; Lily's technique had worked. I stayed away from her boyfriend, hoping the day would come when they broke up on their own.
And then the day arrived, but it was not a happy occasion for me at all.
It happened three months into the school year, in the middle of our winter exams. I was in my English class, adding the final touches on the composition we were required to do, when the vice-principle rushed into the room, looking harried.
He whispered to the teacher and, having sat near the front, I heard Lily's name being mentioned. Looking around the classroom - Lily and I shared the same English period - I realized that she was nowhere to be seen. Frowning at the thought of Lily skipping school, I completed my exam and handed it in.
We found out the next day about what had happened to Lily.
Her parents had been out of town for work, and Lily had been in charge of taking care of her toddler brother. She had been focused on studying for her exams, and had not noticed her brother playing with the knobs on the gas stove.
The carbon monoxide had slowly spread throughout the house and killed the two siblings as they slept.
Lily was no longer a barrier between myself and Kieran, but I didn't care. Instead, I mourned the girl I had unknowingly considered a friend.
Exams having been completed, school was dismissed for winter holidays.
When second term began in January, Kieran was nowhere to be seen. I missed seeing him in the hallway, having him smile or nod at me, but I missed Lily more - the way she stood up for herself without hurting anyone, the way she managed to befriend and charm everyone without having any hidden agenda.
I found out later that Kieran had moved across the country, and was now living with his aunt on the west coast.
Time passed, and life went on.
I finished high school, and went on to university; I moved back to the city and lived on residence.
I dated and had flings. I lost my virginity in my senior year to my boyfriend at the time.
I visited Lily's parents often; they had had another daughter a few years later, and I became a big sister figure to little Amelia. In some ways, I became more of a daughter to them than to my own parents.
After finishing my post-secondary education, I received a job offer in Vancouver. I accepted it immediately to get away from my suddenly-smothering family.
That's how I saw Kieran again, two years later.
It was an accidental meeting, in the middle of a parade. In a crowd that big, it was common to bump shoulders by accident. Usually, one wouldn't turn to apologize to the person they had crashed into but, that one time, I had turned to do so.
And I met the pale blue eyes that had haunted me so long ago.
"Kieran?" I exclaimed, grabbing his arm so we wouldn't get separated.
He recognized me immediately and pulled me closer to him so I wouldn't get jostled. "Vanessa! My God, it's been years!"
I was delighted he still remembered me. We spent that night on the beach, catching up on our lives.
Kieran had used education as a means to avoid the pain left behind by Lily's death. He was now an engineer at one of the premier companies in the continent.
He wanted to know what I had done in the past few years. I told him of my studies, of my job, of my family. At his insistence, I told him about Lily's parents and surprised him with the news of Amelia.
It became a weekly ritual for us to meet up, and we became good friends.
The attraction was still there, simmering under my skin, but I let myself bask in his friendship, and pushed aside all thoughts of a romance.
Little did I know that he was doing the same.
I met my co-worker's brother at an office party a few months after seeing Kieran again. We clicked, Tom and I, and we began dating.
When Tom proposed, 7 months later, I accepted. My parents had been complaining of my age, even though I was still in my 20s, and Tom really was a nice guy.
Kieran had been surprisingly close-mouthed about my relationship with Tom, always changing the subject when his name came up, and my announcement of our marriage took him off guard.
"You can't do it," he told me adamantly. "Vanessa, he's not right for you."
"I love him," I had told him, my mouth easily speaking the lie. "I'm sorry if you can't accept that."
He had left at that point, walking away without a word.
Kieran had not shown up for our next weekly meeting, and he did not respond to my numerous phone calls, text messages, or e-mails.
I waited for hours the next week as well, but he was still a no-show.
The pain in my chest built as I went home that day. It came out in the form of tears, and I called Tom and told him the wedding off.
It was the anniversary of Lily's death, a few months later, that I saw him again.
As was my habit, I had flown back home to visit her grave. With just a few smiles, this girl had changed my life and made me the person I was now. I felt I owed it to her to remember her.
Crouching in front of the tombstone that marked Lily's final resting place, I heard the soft sound of footsteps.
Kieran stood behind me, holding a single lily in his hands. "I thought I would find you here," he said to me.
I nodded and stared at his shoes, wondering what he was doing there.
He held the lily in my line of sight, so that I would see it, and I looked up at him in surprise.
"Because you mourned her more than most," he told me, kneeling to press it into my hands. "She was your competition, a girl whose boyfriend you wanted, and you let it all go when she lost her life. You respected her life and mourned her death when you didn't even know her well."
I stared down at the lily in my hand. "She was an angel," I whispered. "Who could hate her?"
"Many in your situation would have." He put a finger under my chin and tilted my face up, forcing me to meet his eyes. "And the fact that you didn't, and the compassion you showed for her grieving family...that's what made me fall in love with you."
I blinked back tears. "I'm not like that," I whispered, "Everything I did was out of guilt."
"For what?" he asked gently. "For liking someone else's boyfriend? It's not like you did anything about it, other than to declare it openly."
When put that way, I could see he was right. "You love Lily," I reminded him.
"Yes, and part of me always will...but that was childish love, and nothing compared to how I feel about you today." He kissed away the tears on my left cheek. "And today, on Lily's grave, I finally tell you this...to show how serious I am."
A part of me began to hope, yearning blossoming in my heart. "Kieran..."
"Shh," he said, pulling me to my feet.
He slid down onto a knee and looked up at me as fresh tears started streaming down my face.
"Many years ago, I wished you luck on a goal I didn't think you could, or would, ever achieve. Today, I realize how wrong I was." Kieran pulled a box out of his jacket pocket. "Vanessa Cerille...will you keep the promise you made to me that day and agree to become Vanessa Westwood?" He flipped open the box to reveal a gold ring; it had a ruby as the central stone, with tiny diamonds clustering around it.
I dropped down to my knees in front of him, sobbing.
He took me into his arms, cradling my head against his shoulders. "Vanessa, say yes."
"Are you sure?" I croaked, my chin on his shoulder.
"Vanessa," he repeated, "say yes."
"I...can't," I said, drawing away.
Pain flashed in his eyes. "Why not?"
I stared at the ground.
Kieran sighed and tilted my chin up again. "Do you love me?"
I didn't have to think twice. "Yes."
His lips curved.
"I'm going to ask you again...and you're going to say 'yes' this time," he instructed. "Vanessa, I love you. Will you marry me?"
His lips met mine as we kneeled beside Lily's grave.
The sky opened up and snow began falling.
Lily was blessing us.